The AJ Meerwald, the official Tall Ship of the state of New Jersey, is back in the water after a 10-month-long historical restoration in Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding

BELFAST, Maine — The AJ Meerwald, the official tall ship of the state of New Jersey, is restored, rejuvenated and just about ready to return home after a 10-month historic restoration by expert boatbuilders in Belfast.

“It feels good to get the Meerwald and make her really look brand-new,” Garett Eisele, co-owner of Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding of Lincolnville, said Tuesday. “We are really excited to see the boat in the water. We are really pleased with how it turned out.”

Maine is one of the few places where a project like this can happen — “on time and on budget,” he said — because there are enough skilled craftspeople around who know how to return historic vessels like the 94-year-old oyster dredging schooner to their former glory.

“In the midst of a pandemic winter, we hired up a crew. We didn’t have a single slacker on our crew. People were incredible, and there was nobody who was not very, very experienced,” Eisele said. “And everybody was very local.”

He credits that, in part, to the state’s fleet of historic wooden schooners, which continue to sail the coastal waters in the summertime.

“Last weekend, I was sailing, and there were 12 schooners sitting there, with all these people sitting on them, and all these little sailboats scooting around,” he said. “This is really, really special in the world. That these boats are running is why we have the skill set here to not only do an interpretation, or pick at it, but to actually be tradespeople and do it right.”

The schooner is owned by the non-profit Bayshore Center at Bivalve, an environmental history museum located on New Jersey’s Maurice River. It’s used as a traveling classroom to teach people about the historically rich oyster grounds of Delaware Bay and more.

The Meerwald, which arrived in Maine in September 2021, was due for a makeover, and Eisele and Tim Clark got the job.

The wooden boat’s transformation is stunning, said John Gandy, a retired ship captain who lives in Blue Hill. He rescued the Meerwald from the New Jersey mudflats back in 1986, when he bought it for a dollar from its owner, who had stripped it and had no further use for it. It was in rough shape. But Gandy’s family had been in the oyster industry on the south Jersey shore in past generations, and he knew something about oyster dredging schooners.

“They’re beautiful vessels, and I always had the crazy dream of how neat it would be to restore one back to sail,” he said.

The AJ Meerwald, an oyster dredging schooner that is New Jersey’s official Tall Ship, has finished its 10-month-long restoration in Belfast. Courtesy of Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding Credit: Courtesy of Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding

The boat’s first restoration was completed in 1994 after a great deal of fundraising and the formation of a non-profit organization.  

“It’s pretty awesome to see it float again. And gee whiz, the whole transition has just been unbelievable,” he said. “These people are artists with working with wood. It’s just absolutely stunning, what they have done with the boat and what it looks like now. I can’t find words to describe it.”

Now freshly painted white with jaunty stripes of color on its hull, the wide-beamed Meerwald was one of hundreds of sailing vessels built for the oyster fishery in southern New Jersey. It was a lucrative business, and at its height, the oyster community of Bivalve, New Jersey, shipped 30 to 80 boxcars full of oysters packed on ice daily to destinations all over the country.

The restoration aimed to return the boat’s new luster.

“They had a historian on staff who was double-checking our project plan, to make sure that what we did was in keeping, and that we were replacing in kind as much as possible,” Eisele said.

Ultimately, the team had to replace everything from the deck level up, including the transom and about 30 hull planks. Because it was a historic renovation, they worked closely with the New Jersey Trust regarding the materials they could use, down to the species of wood.

“It was definitely the biggest project we’ve done,” Eisele, 31, said. “We’ve been building a relationship with the boat for a long time. We had a pretty good idea of what we’re getting into, but there’s always stuff you just can’t know when you do the [demolition].”

The experience of restoring the Meerwald was special, he said.

“I think that this field of work is particularly interesting because it’s a dead trade. It’s not really something that people are doing in any commercial way anymore, and as we get further and further from the age of sail, with each generation we lose more and more information about how this is done,” Eisele said.

He’s glad that they were able to lease land from the city of Belfast where they built a temporary structure to do the work on the boat.

Despite many COVID-19 delays and unexpected surprises, such as rot that hadn’t previously been identified, the crew — which numbered 14 people at the peak — got the work done.

John Brady, the interim director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, said he is delighted with the Meerwald’s restoration. The organization is working out the details for the return voyage to New Jersey. It’ll spend a week at dock in Belfast, and then be moved, perhaps to Castine, until the crew is ready to sail it home to Bivalve.  

“The boat looks, I think, better than ever,” he said. “It’s been really great working with the folks in Maine to get this done. It’s great to see there’s such a strong interest in maintaining wooden vessels in Maine.”